DURHAM County Council and teaching assistants are on a collision course after members voted to impose unpopular changes to their contracts.

The proposal to terminate contracts in order to introduce new terms and conditions was met with an immediate announcement from a trade union that it was "left with no option" but to lodge a formal dispute and issue a ballot for strike action.

Unison says the new contracts will result in a pay cut of up to 23 per cent for the 2,700 teaching assistants (TAs) employed by the council.

Helen Metcalf, regional officer for Unison, said: "We are bitterly disappointed with the decision taken by the authority to forcibly impose a less favourable contract on TAs.

"Our members have already indicated, in a consultative ballot, that they overwhelmingly reject these proposals, when 95 per cent voted against the proposed changes."

She added TAs will lose £200 to £400 per month of their salary and "face being driven into poverty and relying on food banks".

And TAs who turned out for the extraordinary full council meeting today (May 16) at County Hall, in Durham, condemned the bold decision.

Sue Mitchell, 62, has been a teaching assistant for 29 years at St Charles RCVA Primary School, in Spennymoor.

Through tears, she said: "My gut reaction is it is a very sad day for all teaching assistants."

Others attending the meeting on a day off or with the blessing of head teachers declared the decision as "disgusting" and warned TAs across the county would look for work in neighbouring authorities where pay grades are higher.

According to independent legal advice the authority says it is at risk of equal pay challenges from other members of its workforce.

The council says it is because TAs are currently paid for working 37 hours a week, 52 weeks a year, but in fact work 32.5 hours a week during school term time only.

Liberal Democrats Cllr Owen Temple and Cllr Amanda Hopgood, Durham Independent Group Cllr Peter May and Independent Cllr Alex Watson all spoke out against imposing new contracts.

Cllr Temple said: "Legal opinion is just that, opinion. It is certainly not sufficient ground for us to desert a group of valuable, low paid, largely female employees who deserve our careful consideration."

He added that it was also a "sad day for democracy" with around 40 Labour councillors absent from the meeting.

The council will now undertake a process to dismiss TAs and re-engage them on new contracts.

Revised terms and conditions are expected to be implemented by January 2017.

Fifty seven councillors voted to approve the proposal, 18 voted against and there were four abstentions.

Cllr Jane Brown, cabinet member for corporate services, said: "These proposals are aimed at ensuring fairness and parity across our workforce."